When I was a child, a little girl among a chatter of little girls, life had the sweetness of honeysuckle and each day filled leisurely from within, a personal chronicle of exploration and delight. We swung on the beach swings, wondering at the sensation of our long hair tickling as it dragged against the sand on the down swing. We peered into the armpits of small turtles, tried the taste of ants and laughed at eachother’s sour expressions. We practiced for hours to plant our small bare feet in every chalk drawn square of the hopscotch game on the sidewalk and jump over the one with the stone without losing balance. And, eating cookies served with milk in tall glasses, we played Old Maid, a mysterious game that carried the whiff of prophecy.
I was a little afraid of this game. If I lost too often would my destiny be captured somehow? Would I become this dread thing, this “old maid”? Did that grim little grey woman on the card, left in one’s hands when all the others were paired and gone, have the power to make that same future come to pass for the little girl that held it?
The future in those days, for little girls trying earnestly to imagine it, was offered to our view in lavish photographs in Life Magazine. Grown women with swirling belted skirts, red lipped, blonde hair shorn modernly, or pulled back tight. There were gay beatnik women, (happy, not homosexual) who threw back their heads at parties where everyone flirted amidst a haze of smoke. There were housewives perking Folgers coffee, mopping with a queenly air, for the home was meant to be a woman’s little empire, where she belonged, but also where she covertly ruled and showed her manifold skills and mysterious womanly talents. Everyone was meant to fall in love, perfectly, with the perfect person who had already been born somewhere, just for each of us to find and marry. And it was almost certain that we would be able to do so. No problem. It was fated. Unless, ever so oddly and sadly, something went wrong and we became Old Maids.
So now I am 61. Never married and thus, clearly, one of these lost ones. Yet having arrived, I look about and find I am often as happy again now as I was at 6. Many things have happened in those years of course. Many stories lived and many more stories – of others – glimpsed and pondered. Years of depression as it became clear there would be no perfect mate for me. Yet being an Old Maid no longer seems the catastrophe it was from the vista of childhood. This is I think is more than the “sour grapes” perspective of one who has witnessed more than a few promising marriages turn into living hells for the participants, for I observed many other relationships as well, in which love modulated into a lifetime of deep friendship. Not a bad life at all for those lucky couples. And yet now, comparing the geography of my life to the roads I could have taken, the quiet rich freedom of my days fills me. In subtle ways I chose this. I chose not to be bound by the lives and confusions and emotions of others close by. I had enough of my own. And now with retirement coming, there is the financial leisure at long long last, to start moving forward again. With writing, with meditation, with that journey I came to make.
For there is another role for a solitary woman, the nun. The spiritual seeker. The cloistered, vow-bound version of this, whether Buddhist or Christian, does not yet appeal, though I see many of my contemporaries in Buddhist circles moving toward that door, and many the better for it. But for now, for me, it is Annie Dillards version of “nun” that appeals most. A woman amidst a life simplified, looking out on the world with no clutter between. Seeing time and lives manifold and holding them all in the cup of her heart.
Thus does what we fear most turn out to be what we most wanted – so often.